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Brickbat's fuel to Antrim's fire

By Declan Bogue

At the back row of the John Vesey Stand sat Jim McGuinness and his Donegal management team, observing, studying, watching the Antrim win over Fermanagh.

No doubt, they came away with the name of Brian Neeson as one that deserves scrutiny.

He burned no fewer than five different markers in his first Championship start for the Saffrons, hit 1-6 and was named man of the match in yesterday's newspapers.

But while Donegal are keeping close tabs on the 24-year-old St John's attacker, don't expect 'Bam' to scrutinise McGuinness and his 2012 All-Ireland champions.

When asked after the game if he had watched the victory over Derry seven days previous to see how Donegal structure their backline, Neeson grinned and replied: "No, I don't really watch Gaelic. I don't watch it, I'm a soccer man!"

In GAA, that kind of comment makes Neeson somewhat unique, but everything about his performance showed what a talent he has.

He had three points in the first six minutes as Pete McGrath auditioned a succession of markers on him, all finding the going too tough.

His goal was a shining example of what Antrim were doing right and what Fermanagh got wrong. Kevin Niblock had the ball far out the field and looked up to see the entire inside 45 metres empty, save for Neeson and his latest marker, Che Cullen.

He hit a diagonal ball that Neeson was onto in a flash, overtaking Cullen on the turn before lashing his shot past goalkeeper Chris Snow on 29 minutes.

While his pace was fiery, his career to this point has been a slow-burner.

Liam Bradley introduced him into the team in 2012, making his National League debut against Sligo but his form was patchy over that campaign. He came on a sub against Monaghan in the Ulster Championship defeat that summer but that was his only action outside of the league before yesterday.

This spring, he was held on a tight lead with three walk-on roles in the first four league games before being unleashed against Tipperary, scoring 2-8, three from frees.

Memories of being taken off in the first half in the league game at the same venue two years ago spurred him on.

"I definitely wanted to make a statement," he said. "The last time we were down in Tipperary two years ago, I was taken off after 10 minutes. I was going back down there this year thinking, 'right, I need to improve here now.'

"But we were beaten so it didn't mean anything. Personally, for my confidence it was good."

And while he finished up with 3-15 in the league, he still never found the defences he faced in Division Four quite as wide-open as he found the Fermanagh defence on Sunday.

"I was a bit surprised," he said about the defensive gaps that opened up in the home side, "but they seemed to give it to us, so you are going to take it all day long. I think they planned to play with a sweeper but our plan was to push on and I don't think they really knew what to do after that.

"Then we got a bit in front and they were always chasing, leaving gaps behind.

"Every time we needed a score we kept getting it and thanks to Kevin (O'Boyle) we stayed in the Championship at the end.

"Boys like Kevin Niblock and Tomás McCann, if they are playing the ball into you, you are going to fancy yourself against any defender, it doesn't matter who he is."

It's been a surprising and impressive alteration in mindset from these players who appeared to be beaten dockets after a league campaign that brought only two home wins, over London and Waterford respectively.

Player walkouts a few weeks back also cast further clouds over their hopes but within the camp, Neeson maintained they knew they weren't as bad as they were made out to be.

"It's brilliant, a fantastic transformation. The boys knew what we had to do and we might have looked at the league a bit lightly, thinking that we might have been better than a lot of teams.

"But we knew we had a good chance, it was just a matter of putting it together."

Both teams needed an Ulster Championship win for their own self-esteem, but Neeson is neither getting carried away, nor is he scared rigid of facing Donegal in the semi-final.

"It's just a Championship win," warned Neeson.

"We will go again against Donegal and nobody will give us a chance. We will keep our heads down and work hard. If we win, we win. So be it.

"We will back ourselves. I don't think anyone else will back us, but as long as we back ourselves we have a chance."

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